Monthly Archives: September 2014

For Russia, Christmas arrived several months early, when Ukraine ratified an agreement giving temporary autonomy to the areas of Luhansk and Donetsk and amnesty for Russian volunteers there. An eternity ago, when Russia initially annexed Crimea and supported rebels in Eastern Ukraine, this was the outcome Putin chose.

This previous spring, Russia’s aggression seemed irrational. What were they going to reasonably gain? The apparent answer: A few drops of oil and awkward access to the Black Sea, against economic sanctions that have now pushed the Ruble to dangerous lows and the ire of Nato, Europe, and the other satellites like Finland and Kazakhstan. Yet Russia continued to push when only future pain seemed certain. The question then became; how far were they willing to go? Were they going to invade Ukraine?

Full-scale invasion seemed even more ridiculous, yet Russia pushed right up to that point, (some would even admit, past it) moving whole divisions inside Ukrainian territory and opening up new fronts, like Mariupol. And furthermore, here we are, with a cease-fire that merely helps to decentralize the Ukrainian government in three years. To a casual western observer, the only plausible explanation is that Putin truly wants Ukraine on some passionate, nationalist, elemental level of his being, so much that he is willing to cut Russia off from Europe’s economy, alienate any true friends he has and swing whole swaths of his nation into poverty over rising food prices. Furthermore, it looks at first glance as if he has failed.

But this is where Baduk, or Go, comes in. (For those of you who don’t know how to play Go, learn.) Early last year The West approached Russia’s corner in Ukraine by tempting Ukraine with a membership in the EU. This was an easy opening in The East’s defenses, brought by Russia’s dependence on high extended positions – their satellites, if you will. Russia, however, was not about to let The West uproot Ukraine without any sort of repercussions. So, Russia’s next move was to gently push back by pressuring Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, to clamp down on western supporters within his country, and withhold interest in an EU membership. At this point in time, it was business as usual in world politics, with different countries exerting safe, subtle pressures on their neighbors in the hopes of keeping a status quo where no one could rise as a legitimate threat to other nations.

Board 1

Above, The West, playing white, realizes that Russia’s influence over Ukraine is more important when viewed as influence over the rest of Europe. Russia’s framework up unto this point seemed off-balance, but Russia always planned to be able to exert economic pressure on Ukraine, and in doing so solidify power over the rest of its outlying stones. However, as an up-and-coming economy and one of the three possible natural gas routes from Russia to Germany, Ukraine in Russian hands is too powerful an influence on the European economy. With the marked stone, Europe has attempted to cut off this Russian influence over Ukraine, and extend into the center of a Russian moyo. Russia’s next move, to pressure Ukraine, also functions as a signal to other nations, which in turn makes a white rebuttal crucial, to make it clear to Russia’s satellites that they can escape Russia’s orbit if needed.

Board 2


Cue American funding to rebel groups within Ukraine, which destabilizes the country and proverbially separates it from the edge of the board. Now it’s on Russia to make sure it doesn’t lose it’s grasp on Ukraine. At this point, there is no hope in fighting it out and capturing the marked stones: America’s foray into the field has made sure that at least the eastern half of Ukraine is going to be part of the EU. Since the part that Russia had hoped to define in the future, on the second line, has just been defined, it is now imperative for Russia to get something else out of this. Russia needs to refocus on it’s principle strategy- economic influence over the larger board.

Board 3

Instead of playing it safe, letting The West have Ukraine, and re-enforcing it’s control over an already weak economy, Russia funds the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk. In doing so, the EU is forced to take what openings it has and threaten a major invasion (in Go terms) into Russian territory, using sanctions. But the West can’t go all-out. If it severs all economic ties with Russia, it will leave itself open in the ensuing restructuring and force Russia to take something with equal or greater value- any chance of influence or territory in Russian satellite countries. Fighting with separatists is dangerous, but a practical ko battle involving dozens of points is insane. The EU is a loose organization: It can’t adequately empower it’s member states to make informed, unbiased decisions on the value of large swaths of territory. As a result, it moves slowly, safely, territoriality. However, this forces Russia to get risky, in order to form influence great enough to adequately mount attacks on tight European economic formations. Thus, above we see Russia sacrifice some of its own economic integrity in the hopes that its long-term successes in European markets will render early concessions unnecessary and slow for Europe.

Board 4

Now that there is a cease-fire in Ukraine, it looks as if in the coming years Russia will be able to easily assert control over Eastern Ukraine, or “NovoRossiya.” The West may still be able to bring it inline with the rest of Ukraine, but that would be a waste of time and resources perhaps better spent on other things. Right now, it’s true, there are other fish to fry, and everyone’s going to tenuki. But over the coming months, The West’s ability to keep moving in on Russia’s economy will crumble, as every day that goes by strengthens the EU’s addiction to Eastern natural gas. Also, sanctions are a pretty paltry gesture in the short term, and a good Go player will likewise notice cutting points in the West’s wall that Russia will try to exploit by reorganizing its oil infrastructure and trading much more with developing markets in Africa and South America. And most importantly, over the long term, Russia might attempt to undercut white’s territorial groups. Give it five or ten years, and Ukraine will be ripe to escalate yet again, after other, more valuable moves are played.

That’s the value to likening this situation to Go- it develops in abstraction, so we can see that the bigger picture extends over decades, not months, and each move must be played when the time is right, according to the direction of play. While the world’s attention is devoted to ISIS and Ebola, it may not be the best time to spend resources on fixing the complex hierarchies in Europe. Also, the above is a joseki- an almost inevitable outcome given this exact situation, where both parties have equal access to all the information available, and are both reasonably versed in current strategies. From the beginning, when one move led to another, both parties saw the possible outcomes and forced each other to choose one that didn’t have a clear winner, even though Russia assumed more risk. In Go, this is a good outcome. Less so in real life, for the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Ukraine, the millions in Europe with uncertain access to winter warmth, and the destitute Russian citizens.

Hold it! As my esteemed colleague Phoenix Wright might say.

There is a fundamental flaw in your argument, my friend. Just because we can identify a difference between simple pleasures (those defined by physical phenomena) and complex pleasures (those defined by cognition and critical reasoning), does not mean that one is necessarily better or more fulfilling than the other.

Stepping down off of Aristotle’s pedestal for a moment, I would like to consider the idea that, not only can your every-man obtain happiness, everybody can obtain happiness.

I’m not talking about a eudemonic sense of subconscious wellbeing. I’m talking about consistent and regular contentment and joy.

The thing is, everybody creates their own definition of what makes them happy based on the relative values of that individual. This relativistic values system means that while you or I might see fulfillment in the completion of a long term project, another might see it in a 6-pack of beer. What I am arguing right now is that neither one of these is any more worthwhile or fulfilling than the other.

As soon as we start to assign subjective values to the worth of various pursuits of our time, we are being inconsiderate of the situation and values of those around us. All happiness is subjective to situation and character. It is borderline contentious to say that any pursuit (setting aside the utilitarian sense) is worth more than any other pursuit outside of our own personal perspective.

It’s all well and good to line pleasures up on a spectrum – perhaps from those that are instinctual to those that are intellectual – but that does not create just cause for distinction of worth. It is possible for many things to be different and equitable at the same time.

On a similar train of thought, I’d like to make the distinction between values and happiness. Values (to a certain extent) are the parameters that define what makes us happy, and what we want to strive for. Just as you cannot assign arbitrary values of worth to happiness, you similarly cannot say that any one value is “higher” or “worth more” than another. To be higher implies superiority. We can arrange values on a scale and define them by region, culture, religion etc. But, we cannot assign worth to these values without imposing our own subjective viewpoint onto others.

“What about Utilitarianism?” cry the peanut gallery! “Egalitarianism!”

To this I say, hold your horses. Even as we begin to look at philosophy that considers the happiness and success of all people in mass such as game theory, GDP focus, majority rule (philosophies that I happen to agree with), we still cannot use these as decisive factors in determining the worth of others actions.

Why not? Well, for precisely the same reason that we can’t objectively assign worth to happiness: whether or not you agree with these philosophies is a reflection of your own personal values and cannot be extrapolated to apply to any other person.

In psychology this concept is referred to as relativism – the idea that “points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration” [American Heritage Dictionary].

So where does this leave us? Isn’t relativism a slippery slope towards Absurdism?

Well, no not really. Absurdists believe that there is no humanly obtainable value or truth in anything. Much like with Nihilism, this is a moot point. Saying that everything equates to nothing or saying that everything equates to something is the same thing. In the end, the distinction between nothing, and something (1 and 0) is purposeless because the conclusion that life is meaningless doesn’t make life stop existing.

The point I’m trying to make is not that there is no way to define happiness, or no way to guide people to happiness. I don’t believe that. Rather, I am fighting against the contentious notion that any single person is worth more, is doing more, is living a more fulfilling life than any other person. This is plainly untrue. Money, success, intelligence, accomplishment, physical fitness or any other arbitrary value we assign to the worth of someone’s life are horrible indicators, because they are relative to our own personal perspective. Aristotle may have believed himself to be above those around him. I, however, reject that notion.

First off, apologies for being late. School also started for me and it’s likewise been a bit nuts.

Secondly, AHA! I’ve got you! As I suspected, you identified a difference between base pleasures and higher values, and you chose to define different levels (I’m going to call them that for our purposes) of what you want, irrelevant to “happiness.” You also, most damningly, mentioned important values. In short, you described a worldview, or at least, a view towards what you might think is best for your person, that is strikingly similar to Aristotle’s! AHA!

As the man to first coin the term “ethics,” he and his co-conspirators Socrates and Plato have  an indelible mark on American ideology. He also helped congeal a perceived difference between hedonism and a much more puritan ideal of a virtuous person. Classic Hedonists would not see a difference between say, a steady iv drip of heroin, passionate love-making, or completing a whittling project. Pleasure is pleasure. But to most people, I think, there are base pleasures, and higher pleasures, which is why we can here call them levels of pleasure. The highest pleasures last the longest, but are more subtle. These we would call virtues, or values.

For instance, you and I value ambition. But as you say, being too ambitious is a problem: you might pursue something to the detriment of yourself. I might be wrong, but refuse to see it, for instance. So there’s a scale on which you could be too ambitious, or too little. Perhaps “ambitious,” then, is the wrong word for it- the far right end. The left end would be sloth, and the middle, what you want, is “initiative,” and if we have a good amount of initiative in our lives, we will reap subtle rewards and be better people, and Aristotle thinks we will be happy.

But happiness need not be equivalent to pleasure. As Douglas Adams said, “you cannot know the question and the answer at the same time.” Similarly, if we were truly happy, we wouldn’t really care to spend time thinking about it, would we? We would already have initiative, courage, humility, love, empathy, worldliness, knowledge, what have you, and most importantly, we would be implicitly confident enough not to know that we were these things at all. You know, if you have to question whether or not your action was right, are you doing it to be right, or are you doing it because it’s right? If you’re truly Mother Teresa, you wouldn’t think about whether or not to give food to orphans, and you wouldn’t think about how it reflects on you. When we reach Mother Teresa’s level, we will have changed as people and we will have achieved “Eudaimonia,” which is Greek-speak for something I suppose is equivalent to the Buddha’s Transcendence, except we don’t leave the Eternal Wheel, or whatever.

There are a lot of classic problems with Aristotle’s Ethics, but I’ve always liked it because it’s loose. He doesn’t actually think anyone will ever really know what they really want, but they still want it. The virtues that lead one to Eudaimonia need not be the same for everyone, depending upon the situation, and it need not be possible for everyone to reach it in their life. Aristotle actually says that the working man won’t have the time to devote himself to leading a good life, and still others will never have the opportunity to demonstrate, say, courage or selflessness, or perhaps many virtues, and they will not have the opportunity to reap the higher pleasures afforded to those who can demonstrate most virtues. In short, it’s for rich people with time on their hands.

But it’s looseness has not stopped it from defining, or perhaps discovering, what makes Americans tick on a fundamental ethical level. We all have ideal versions of ourselves that we each strive for, whether or not those versions are within reach. We all are taught virtues early in life by people who believe that those virtues will lead us to a life well lived. And we all know some people who seem more at peace than others. Maybe they don’t show it, maybe they haven’t achieved enlightenment or anything, but they are perhaps “happier” holistically than other poor souls who hurt themselves and others.

But eh, people are complicated.